"It's horrible," said Jennifer Brown, head of the New York City chapter of the National Organization for Women. The Rev. Jesse Jackson called it "an attempt to reverse history" that could result in "an American form of apartheid." But to Harvard Sociology Professor Nathan Glazer, a leading neoconservative, it was "a step in the right direction," one that "took enormous courage."
Rousing this chorus of commentary last week was a three-page discussion draft prepared by White House aides as a possible addition to Executive Order No. 11246, issued by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. The measure has been denounced for creating a legal and social nightmare and praised as one of the most important tools for ending discrimination in the U.S. It requires firms that do business with the Federal Government to take "affirmative action" to eliminate racial bias in employment. To enforce the order, the Labor Department in 1968 began requiring that contractors set numerical goals for blacks, other minorities and women in hiring, promotion and pay.
The draft amendment reflects the Reagan Administration's concern that firms are engaging in "reverse discrimination" to meet numerical goals. As leaked to reporters last week, the proposed revision states that the order does not require businesses "to utilize any numerical quota, goal or ratio, or otherwise to discriminate against or grant any preference to any individual or group on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin." It adds that "a failure to adopt or attain any statistical measures" would not, by itself, be wrong.
At present, job statistics are used to determine whether a contractor is guilty of illegal discrimination. "With that ruled out," says Richard Seymour, attorney with the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a legal assistance group, "the only thing left is when the employer openly discriminates. That kind of evidence is scarce as hen's teeth these days." Last week the executive council of the AFL-CIO reiterated its support for "strong affirmative action." Those who oppose mandatory numerical goals argue that they violate the civil rights of people who lose jobs or promotions in quota systems. "Our concept of affirmative action," says Mark Schultz, an official of the national Chamber of Commerce, "has always included the belief that the road to equal employment should not pave the way for discrimination against others." White House Spokesman Larry Speakes insisted last week that the draft, which is scheduled for discussion at a future working group of the Cabinet, was "in the early stages." He added, "It certainly has not been presented to the President. Therefore, it has no standing whatsoever as Administration policy."